A year of living dangerously

I RECENTLY saw a film called I Don’t Know How She Does It, which portrays the trials and tribulations of a woman who dares to juggle that holy trinity of husband, children and — whisper its name — a high-flying career.

Having spent the best part of 2011 watching my friend, multi-award-winning correspondent Alex Crawford, being shelled, shot at, tear-gassed, roughed-up and arrested in the line of duty, the film plot seemed a tad weak.

For while Crawford risks life and limb to report from some of the world’s most godforsaken spots, her husband Richard Edmondson has sacrificed his own successful career to stay home with their four children (plus two adorable new puppies). It is a lifestyle that would put most relationships under severe pressure, but they make it work. Which has to beg the question not only of ‘how she does it’? but ‘why does she do it’? Crawford says her dilemma is simply that faced by many other working mothers.

“I adore my family and they are never in any doubt about the strength of my feelings. Ideally, the kids would like me to be a dinner lady at their school, but there is grudging acceptance at home that I have to go to places most people would never dream of going, nor ever want to. It is fantastic, amazing, interesting, exciting. Not the war and the danger, obviously. I am genuinely terrified most of the time. But reporters have different DNA. It’s hard to explain how intoxicating, how interesting and how utterly addictive it can be,” Crawford says.

It is an addiction that can take Crawford away from home for weeks, sometimes months, leaving Edmondson operating as a single parent. The majority of women in television have their glory moments before settling down and having kids. With Crawford, the reverse was true.

“I consider myself a bit of a slow starter. I’m 49 now, but I cannot remember ever not wanting to be a foreign correspondent. Lack of opportunity, lack of jobs and definitely lack of contraception meant I had to wait.

“Four kids in fairly quick succession meant that every time I returned from maternity leave, I went to the end of the queue again. I applied for so many foreign postings — Moscow, India, China and Africa — and was turned down for every one. Finally, I wore them down. I’m convinced they only gave me the Asia bureau because they thought it was a quiet beat. Even as they told me I had the job, a senior manager said ‘I know I’m not allowed to ask this, but you have finished having children, haven’t you’?” she says.

She had, and in 2005 the family moved from London to New Delhi. If her bosses thought they were sending her to a sleepy backwater, they could not have been more wrong. The Asian tsunami, the Mumbai bombings, the troubles in Pakistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto all happened on her patch. As she moved on to Dubai, the Middle East erupted. Last year, the family moved again, this time to South Africa, though Crawford has rarely been home long enough to unpack her bags.

Edmondson, well-known among the horse fraternity in Ireland through his job as racing correspondent for The Independent newspaper, is now a stay-at-home dad in Johannesburg caring for Nat (16), Frankie (14), Maddy (12), and nine-year-old Flo. The couple say that South Africa will be their permanent home for the next few years, hence the arrival of the Miniature Schnauzer pups, Phineas and Ferb. Edmondson is keeping his racing hand in with a share in a horse named White Tiger. Crawford is both relieved and slightly peeved that the ebb and flow of domestic activity continues smoothly in her absence.

“I know it sounds selfish, and it is my choice, but the really, really big downside of the job is that they all seem quite happy without me. I miss out on important family occasions, like when they all went to the horse auction. Rick deals with everything to do with their schooling, and it shows. Only this morning, I disgraced myself by mixing up what grades the kids are in and one of them said, ‘nice job, Mum.’ Sometimes, I feel such a failure. I love the ritual of putting up the Christmas tree, but that happened in my absence this year too. As a result, I tend to overcompensate when I get back from a trip and want us to do everything together. I am so looking forward to a proper family Christmas and just praying that no big stories break until after the 25th,” she says.

Crawford’s childhood prepared her well for her career. She grew up in Nigeria, where she lived through two coups, and later in Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — during the civil war.

Her own children have had to cope with upheaval, but Crawford says the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

“Every school they have attended since leaving England has had at least 50 nationalities, so they have learned about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. They are totally accepting of different backgrounds, religions and languages. I sometimes worry we might have buggered-up their formal education, but I know they have had a really good cultural grounding. I’m amazed when I listen to their conversations. They are so cosmopolitan and think nothing of jumping on a plane — the older ones unaccompanied — to go and visit friends in other countries and even other continents,” she says.

This has been an incredible year for Crawford. She became the first journalist to win the coveted Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year award for three years running, and received the prestigious James Cameron Memorial Award for her outstanding contribution to journalism. Her coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings was compelling television but it wasn’t pleasant viewing for Edmondson and the kids watching at home. In March, Crawford and two colleagues were trapped inside a mosque in the rebel stronghold of Zawiya as it came under sustained bombardment from pro-Gaddafi troops. For the first time, she considered the possibility that she might not be returning home to her family.

“It was a massacre. There is no other word for it. Women, children, young, old — the killing was totally indiscriminate and utterly terrifying. Rick saw straight away from the television coverage that it was serious and stopped the children from watching. We were in contact the entire time and I kept telling him it would be fine, but all the while I was mentally preparing to die,” she says.

Despite that brush with death, within months Crawford was back alongside the rebels as they advanced on the Libyan capital. Her name trended worldwide on Twitter as she rode into the Libyan capital of Tripoli on the back of a pick-up truck to bring the world the first live television pictures from post-Gaddafi Libya. The pictures were transmitted from a tiny camera plugged into the truck’s cigarette lighter. She explained to viewers that she was only wearing a military helmet and flak jacket to protect herself from the celebratory gunfire. Much to her children’s delight, her interview with a Mr Al-Windi, who ‘liberated’ the fallen dictator’s military hat and gold chains from his bedroom, was set to rap music and became a YouTube sensation.

“Mr Al-Windi was one of my favourite moments. He perfectly captured the exuberance of the day. Often it is the little things that people remember best. His role was as important as anyone else’s and his place in history is now assured,” she says.

Crawford’s place in the broadcasting hall of fame is similarly secure. She has just completed her first book — Colonel Gaddafi’s Hat — due out in the spring. Sky News will be showing not one, but two, documentaries about her over the Christmas period. With no shortage of offers, Crawford could choose to hang up her tin helmet and head home for a comfy desk job. But the girl’s not done yet.

“It took me so long to get here and now I have access to worlds I could only dream about before. It still feels like the greatest privilege on earth and if I am able to use my position to make even a small positive impact on other lives, then that is what I will continue to do for as long as I can,” she says.

* Alex Crawford: A Year to Remember is on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday, December 20, at 9pm

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